Catholic church leaders in the Belleville Diocese promoted a priest they knew as a danger to children until he was in charge of their largest parish and its grade school, where he is accused of sexually abusing students, according to a civil suit filed earlier this month.
Joseph Schwaegel, who was first accused of child sexual abuse in a 1999 lawsuit, has been named in a new complaint filed against the diocese July 19 in St. Clair County Circuit Court.
Schwaegel died in 2016. During his career, diocese officials had given him the elevated title of monsignor and eventually made him rector of Belleville’s St. Peter’s Cathedral and superintendent of Cathedral Grade School.
He was added to the diocese’s list of accused priests who were removed from their churches in 1994.
The latest plaintiff to come forward with allegations against Schwaegel filed under the pseudonym John Doe.
A spokesman for the diocese could not be reached for comment. The lawyers representing the plaintiff were not immediately available for comment.
From 1987, when Doe was a 6-year-old starting kindergarten, until 1989, Schwaegel would call Doe and other students out of class to be alone with him, according to the civil lawsuit. The complaint states that is when Schwaegel sexually abused Doe on the diocese’s property.
Jeph Hemmer, who had also been a student at Cathedral Grade School, said Schwaegel abused him in 1973 at the school and rectory when Hemmer was 8 years old, according to his lawsuit in federal court. Hemmer’s lawsuit, which was refiled in federal court in 2001 after a year in civil court, ended in a settlement. U.S. Magistrate Judge Clifford Proud dismissed the lawsuit against the diocese in that case. Proud died earlier this year.
Both lawsuits argue that the diocese should have prevented Schwaegel from spending time alone with children. There had been allegations made against him before 1973 that were covered up, according to the federal lawsuit. Schwaegel was later arrested for sexual misconduct with an adult in 1987 and served one year of probation while he was in charge of the parish and school, the civil lawsuit states.
He was arrested again in 1994 for requesting sex from an undercover police officer at a highway rest stop. At the time, Schwaegel told the Belleville News-Democrat that his arrests stemmed from an addiction to sex, adding that he wasn’t attracted to children.
“I have never hurt a child, nor would I,” he said in the 1994 interview. Schwaegel had also told the BND that he “never engaged in sexual misconduct,” which he defined as involving a minor or non-consenting adult.
Doe now has post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, according to the lawsuit. He is seeking damages in the civil suit.
Priest was friends with high-ranking church members
Schwaegel announced his resignation from the parish in a letter in 1993. The announcement came after Schwaegel spent five months in a therapy program that he and the diocese said was for stress and anxiety.
He left St. Peter’s at a time when several priests in the Belleville Diocese had been removed from their parishes because of allegations of sexual misconduct. He denied that was the case for him. Later, Schwaegel said that he had actually been undergoing treatment for sex addiction.
Twelve priests and a deacon were removed from their ministries by a diocese review board following reporting by the Belleville News-Democrat in the mid-’90s.
The newest lawsuit accuses officials in the diocese, including Schwaegel, of trying to keep allegations against the priests quiet.
Schwaegel was known as the “singing priest.” He released multiple albums, including one he dedicated to former Bishop William Cosgrove.
His other assignments included St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Trenton, the Meredith Home in Belleville, Notre Dame Academy in Belleville, St. Bernard Catholic Church in Albers and St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Belleville.